Top 5 VR School moments (so far)

As educators it’s always good to reflect on our top learning experiences, and so here are my top 5 VR School moments to date.

1. When the tech works it’s magic

It’s no easy feat getting the tech to work for this project. It includes networking the Oculus Rifts so that students can collaborate in Minecraft VR and deploying Window 10 version of Minecraft to desktop and laptop computers or Pocket Edition Minecraft to tablets and  diverse BYOD mobile devices. The school system has a block on game stores and a work-around was needed. And, then there is the issue of glitches like inexplicable loss of tracking, program crashes or the need to reset Guardian systems that have shifted within the tight space of the VR room.  Every time we get through lesson without too many glitches we breathe a sigh of relief.

2. Students are smiling, laughing, dancing and swimming with dolphins in VR

Watching the joy of students in immersive virtual reality is worth the gargantuan effort to address the technical issues. Students in immersive VR are animated as they explore, create, work together and sensation seek (by flying over landscapes or swimming with dolphins). There is spontaneous dancing and singing too. Watching students have  serious fun in the science classroom is just brilliant.

3. Students recognise if they are distracted and refocus back on the learning task

Students remark that all the cool things to do in immersive VR can distract them from getting on with the learning task; however, most do direct themselves and each other back to learning and actively negotiate roles and actions to achieve their goal. Understanding this dynamic is important for future educational applications of the technology.

4. Students collaborate to create new ways to demonstrate their understanding of the topic

Students generally like the challenge of interpreting the learning task to demonstrate their understanding of the topic in new and creative ways; in this case the task is building biological models and delivering unique and fun presentation modes such as tour experiences.  It isn’t possible to predict how students will creatively use the affordances of immersive VR (like manipulation of scale or embodied spatial navigation), but the end results are often positively surprising (like taking the teacher on a flying tour of an enormous plant cross-section or building a hollow root system that can be traversed by other learners).

5. Some girls start asking questions about technology careers

An unexpected consequence of putting the technology into classrooms is that it has prompted girls express interest in the uses and future of the technology and possible careers in the area. Using immersive technologies for learning may spark career conversations about tech jobs with girls and other groups who are under-represented in the industry. This is worth thinking about.

Over and out for now (I am off to swim with those virtual dolphins) – A/Prof Erica Southgate

Feature image: Screenshot of the dolphins in Minecraft.

Three observations on gender and VR in the classroom

Can immersive virtual reality (IVR) be used to get girls interested in technology subjects and digital careers? The VR School Project offers some insights into this interesting question.

Girls and women are significantly under-represented in STEM courses and professions. In Australia, 84 per cent of those with STEM qualifications are male (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2016) and women make up only 19% of those enrolled in IT degrees (Zagami, 2016). In the USA, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs (Beede et al., 2011) and make up 18% of those with a computer science degree (Vu, 2017). By age 14, girls are far less likely than boys to aspire to STEM-related careers (Archer, 2013). In lights of these statistics, it is worth asking – Can IVR be used to get girls interested in technology subjects and careers?

From phase 1 of the VR School project, we make the following observations:

  1. Girls were much less likely to have tried IVR than boys In our sample (22 female, 32 male), girls were almost 3 times as likely to have had NO experience of IVR compared to boys prior to the study. Boys were 3 times more like than girls to have tried IVR at least once or twice.
  2. A minority of girls were very reluctant to try IVRFour of the twenty two girls explicitly expressed a reluctance to try IVR, some saying it was ‘embarrassing’ to wear a head mounted display (HMD) and/or because they were worried that their classmates were looking at them. These girls requested that the door to the VR room  be closed. While we could not shut the door, we did convince the girls to use the equipment which were mainly away from the view of the class. Gender theory can offer some insight into these girl’s behaviour. Constructions of emphasised femininity require girls and women to comply with certain notions of attractiveness, and, let’s face it, HMDs are not especially beautiful. Girls and women are socialised to be aware of who is looking at them, often so they can remain safe. HMDs block this awareness, making girls feel self-conscious and, perhaps, vulnerable.
  3. Boys expressed absolute enthusiasm for IVR That 79% of boys had experienced IVR prior to the study compared to 36% of girls, points to boys either actively seeking out or being given more opportunities to use new technology. Boys generally volunteered to try out the technology first, while most girls appeared happy to wait. A few girls volunteered to help out assisting other students with equipment and safety in the VR room, but it was mostly boys who took on this role, expressing confidence in their ability despite most being relative newcomers to IVR.

While our sample size is relatively small, these phenomena indicate a need to investigate gendered patterns of IVR technology engagement and interaction more closely. Utilizing social and psychological theories of masculinity and femininity to understand behaviour and opportunity will be important. Having a female researcher on site who demonstrated knowledge about the equipment and immersive experiences was probably helpful, particularly when girls needed encouragement or when they asked about future career opportunities. We believe that IVR does have the potential to switch girls on to technology subjects and careers. However, much more fine-grained research is required to understand and address gender dynamics in classrooms if this is to be fully realized.

 

Bought to you by a woman who loves VR, Associate Professor Erica Southgate

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